Few contemporary saxophonists have developed a practice as rigorous and multi-pronged as New Yorker Steve Lehman, a musician whose investment in post-bop is matched by his work as a composer exploring the ideas of Spectralism. There have always been many facets to his game—and his wide-ranging explorations have been marked by a deep understanding of every disparate tradition. On his staggering new album Sélébéyone, he takes on the jagged cadences of Senegalese rap and the murky atmospherics of underground hip-hop with a powerful live band that breathlessly translates electronic production ideas and MPC-derived beats in real-time to mostly acoustic instruments. Jazz and hip-hop have been flatmates for decades, but more often than not, fusions of the two have forced one of the ingredients to be watered down: not so with Sélébéyone.
Anti-Pop Consortium MC HPrizm and Dakar’s Gaston Bandimic, who raps in Wolof, slalom through the complex, stuttering shape-shifting grooves and clipped melodic shards shaped by altoist Lehman and French soprano saxophonist Maciek Lasserre. The horn men blow astringently precise passages that toggle between tightly coiled unison and lockstep counterpoint; their propulsive improvisations are as forceful as the words spit by the rappers. Drummer Damion Reid unleashes an epic performance, dropping heavy beats that constantly change direction, feel, and time signature from bar-to-bar, presenting himself as a human drum machine with a mind of its own—a sound he’s been perfecting since his contributions to the paradigm-shifting 2007 Robert Glasper album In My Element. Double bassist Drew Gress anchors the splintered grooves while keyboardist Carlos Homs alternates between evocative textures, spooky harmony, and stabbing accents. The rappers navigate the tricky rhythms with dazzling fluidity, unleashing cadences and flow that are just as heady and head nodding, while the reedists convey the immediacy of hip-hop while charting alien beatscapes. It sure feels like a game-changer.